Dietary supplements: what to watch out for when taking them
Dietary supplements can be extremely helpful in many cases and help your health on the jump. However, every now and then you may take too much of a certain nutrient. To prevent this from happening, you should pay attention to the correct dosage. Everything you need to know about nutritional supplements is explained here.
Supplementation or optimization?
Dietary supplements have become a matter of course for many people. We are encouraged to spice up our diet with capsules and powders. Again and again it is claimed that we cannot take in enough nutrients through our food. But capsules with minerals and vitamins are honestly no substitute for a balanced diet. As a rule, the supply of vitamins and minerals is sufficiently guaranteed in a healthy European. However, food supplements can be very useful if you suffer from a nutrient deficiency, for example, or if you want to ensure a guaranteed supply (e.g. in the case of vitamins or minerals because of the risk of catching a cold or intense athletic exertion). Such a possible deficiency concerns substances for which there is a recommended daily intake (NRV = Nutrient Referent Value).
In addition to dietary supplements with a recommended daily intake, there are also, for example, herbal extracts that do not have a recommended daily intake, but which are expected to have a certain additional effect. You should only take such supplements if you are familiar with the current state of scientific studies and hope for certain results. These effects are usually not yet advertised and allowed by the EU, because it requires more studies and an extensive approval process. But in order not to wait decades for this, many people, like us at Nature Basics, already want to take advantage of the possibilities of nutritional optimization and try to get more out of our diet even without approved promises of effects.
Dietary supplements are food
Basically, dietary supplements are food. And foodstuffs may neither have side effects and dangers, nor “cure diseases”. If they did, they would be considered medicines and subject to different regulations. Compared to conventional foods, however, dietary supplements are subject to additional – special – regulations. According to the law, dietary supplements are foods that serve to supplement the diet with valuable nutrients. They may contain either a single nutrient or several. In the case of compounds consisting of several vitamins and minerals, only those mixtures are permitted for which safety can be guaranteed. Thus, the individual components must not interfere with each other’s bioavailability.
On the whole, it can be said that food supplements are harmless. An exception is a severe overdose. This danger also applies to conventional foods, but overdosing is much more difficult than with concentrated dietary supplements. More about this in the next section.
Can dietary supplements cause side effects?
In general, dietary supplements are considered harmless. After all, they are supposed to be good for your health. But Paracelsus, the father of modern medicine, already knew that the dose makes the poison. Especially fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and E can lead to undesirable and unpleasant side effects in high doses. Even the water-soluble vitamin B12 is not without its side effects: If there is an excess in the body, side effects such as acne are possible. Therefore, one should be cautious and take supplements when they are necessary and intended to correct a deficiency of a particular nutrient. A wrong approach would therefore be to simply take as much and as different as possible every day, according to the motto “more helps more”!
Through food, on the other hand, it is hardly possible to take in too large quantities of nutrients. The only exception is liver: it is very rich in vitamin A and should therefore be enjoyed in moderation. And if you take supplements with certain vitamins and minerals, you should make sure that you don’t eat fortified foods on the side (e.g. in milk or yogurt).
What does the Health Claims Regulation of the European Union say?
It is not allowed by law to make misleading nutrition and health claims. This is regulated by the so-called Health Claims Regulation of the European Union. Nutrition claims are about the content of a specific nutrient. If a food is rich in vitamin C, this can and should of course be stated on the packaging. It only becomes more problematic when it comes to health claims. These may only be listed after a successful approval procedure.
Although exaggerated promises of efficacy are prohibited, they are nevertheless frequently encountered. It is common practice for many manufacturers to make advertising claims that are not actually true. Therefore, you should always remain critical and question everything that is written on the packaging. Unfortunately, there is also a flip side to this coin:
In order to protect consumers from exaggerated and false promises of healing, the latest studies are not even taken into account by the authorities. It is an extremely complicated and expensive process to bring a preparation with a certain efficacy claim onto the market in the European Union. In any case, it is worth doing some research on your own. Find out what new studies are available on a particular ingredient. You can consult Google Scholar or otherwise inform yourself on the Internet if there is a reputable institution behind the respective source – please do not use forums and gossip magazines as sources!
How much is too much?
There is more and more talk about high doses of vitamin supplements. They are supposed to protect against all kinds of diseases and therefore be particularly beneficial to health. However, this is a considerable simplification of the facts. High-dose preparations can be detrimental to health. Therefore, there are recommendations for the optimal daily intake (NRV), which should not be exceeded. However, it is worth noting that science does not agree on this, as the recommended daily intake varies from country to country, even in the European Union. At Nature Basics, we pay special attention to the optimal daily dose, so you don’t have to worry about that.
There is no uniform EU-wide regulation. While there are national regulations in some countries, these are completely missing in Germany. Therefore, it is not surprising if people regularly take an overdose of vitamins and minerals. Especially with isolated nutrients this is not seldom the case. However, there are nutrients that can cause complications if taken in excess.
Beta-carotene can be the undoing of smokers: The nutrient can promote the development of lung cancer. Beta-carotene is already present in many foods – further intake is therefore not normally recommended. Caution is advised, especially with fat-soluble vitamins, as they can accumulate in the body.
Tips for taking dietary supplements
Of course, it is best to take all vitamins and minerals through a balanced diet. However, there are situations in which people are dependent on an additional supply of a certain nutrient – for example, in the case of a vegan or vegetarian diet or food intolerances. Therefore, a practical solution is needed that is uncomplicated and allows one to secure the basic supply.
When choosing a dietary supplement, it is advisable to consult a doctor or pharmacist to ensure that you buy the right product. Unfortunately, doctors and pharmacists have different backgrounds and attitudes towards dietary supplements. Therefore, it is best to turn to those who already claim to be active in the field. For supplements that contain NRV ingredients, a blood test will tell you which nutrients you need to take and in what amounts. Of course, this “deficiency-focused approach” does not apply to supplements containing botanicals that are not part of your normal daily diet.
If you take dietary supplements, it is important to pay attention to quality. Buy your supplements from manufacturers who can prove the quality with certificates and laboratory tests. Good customer reviews are also a good indication. Keep in mind that interactions with medications can occur. Therefore, you must not conceal from your doctor that you are taking dietary supplements. Also pay attention to the composition and, of course, to the stated reference quantity. By the way, many manufacturers use fillers or separating agents, so it is also advisable to use products that are as pure and free of additives as possible. And if you finally make sure that production and materials are environmentally friendly, then you have really optimized the intake of food supplements!